By Steve Williams

Powell’s defense set the tone early.

On the very first offensive play of the TSSAA Class 5A quarterfinal game at Scarbro Stadium on a cold Friday night, Rhea County’s red hot Wing-T offense was stopped for no gain as running back Ethan Davis was tackled by freshmen cornerback Conner Wheeler and prevented from turning the corner,

On second down, there was a fumbled snap that resulted in a two-yard loss. Maybe 6-5, 310-pound nose guard Walter Nolen III in the Panthers’ five-man front had something to do with that.

Third down was even worse for the Golden Eagles. They lost three yards and had to punt. In fact, they were forced to punt six out of seven times in the first half. Their other possession ended on downs when Davis was tackled for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-one at its 45-yard line.

Rhea County, which had averaged 50 points per game in its last five outings, was held scoreless for three quarters in a 27-13 loss in the Jungle.

Powell will travel to West High Friday for a semifinal showdown against the Rebels. West reached the semis with a 63-26 win over Central. Both teams are l1-2. Kickoff time is 7 p.m.

“I didn’t get a lot of sleep (last) week after watching what Rhea County had done the last two or three games,” said Powell defensive coordinator Jeff Lusby.

“We knew we had to stop the run. We loaded the box with nine the majority of the night. We had to play real discipline football. We had to read our keys and for that offense, if you look in the backfield, you’re going to get lost. So our kids did a tremendous job of reading what was going on at the line of scrimmage, getting good penetration, our linebackers getting downhill and we were very good at setting the edge.”

Powell’s offense was the co-star in the first two quarters, but it did enough to build a 21-0 halftime lead.

The Fridge, er, uh Big Walt twice was put in the backfield on Powell’s goal-line offense and powered into the end zone from the 3 and the 1. After his first plunge, he showed off some paydirt dancin’ and after his second one he raced over to the sideline to share some high fives with a crowd of PHS students.

Ayden Greene had a 30-yard catch and run on a throw from Jordyn Potts prior to Nolen’s first TD and Adarius Redmond had back to back catches totaling 22 yards before the second one with only 38 seconds left in the half.

In between the TDs, Jason Foust caught a 24-yard pass in the end zone from Potts. Dylan Stooksbury’s PAT kick made it 14-0.

Senior Brian Belcher capped the Panthers’ opening second half drive with a 2-yard run to make it 27-0. Starting RB Jarvis Stockton Jr. set up that TD, breaking loose up the middle for a 58-yard gain to the Golden Eagles’ 13.

Nolen left the game with a shoulder injury in the second half and Rhea County (10-3) scored both of its touchdowns in the fourth quarter but never seriously threatened to catch up. Caleb O’Dell ran in from seven yards out with 5:31 remaining and pulled in a 24-yard pass from Kaleb Martin with 2:00 on the clock.

“They were giving us a little bit of trouble in the second half, running the same play,” said Lusby. “Big Walt got hurt and had to come out, so we had to shuffle some kids around to replace him and we had to use his brother (Warren Nolen, a 6-4, 290-pound freshman who normally plays on the offensive line). So he actually went in to replace Walt.”

Rhea County Coach Mark Pemberton said: “We just got off to a slow start offensively. I thought defensively we played well enough to win. But offensively, we got ourselves in a problem with losing yardage. We didn’t block them very well in the first half.”

Pemberton said Powell was playing a “50 defense and they were just crashing them ends in there.

“We made some adjustments at halftime and came out and moved the ball a lot better. It was just a little bit too late.”

Pemberton praised Walter Nolen and the Powell team as a whole.

“The big kid caused us problems in the first half,” he said. “Obviously, Nolen is a good football player. That’s a quality football team. They’ve got great receivers, a good quarterback, the running back is really good and they’re huge up front. They’ve got all the ingredients to win it.”

Powell Coach Matt Lowe called his team’s defensive performance “unbelievable – from the game plan the coaches put together to the kids executing it and winning at the line of scrimmage.

“That’s a really good running football team. Their coaching staff does a tremendous job of finding creases and holes for those guys and their athletes do a good job. Our kids came out and found a way to win at the line of scrimmage and really shut down a lot of what they do best.”

Rhea County had a net gain of only 24 yards on 22 rushing attempts in the first half compared to 177 yards on 30 carries after intermission.

Foust had two sacks totaling a loss of 20 yards from his linebacker position in the opening half and Redmond administered what looked like the hardest tackle of the game when he dumped Martin for a 13-yard loss in the second quarter.

Big plays on defense by Powell in the second half included a TFL and blocked PAT by Steven Soles, the recovery of an onside kick by Daniel Stanford and a late interception return to the Rhea County 5 by Gianni Magdos in the final minute.

BIG GAME AT WEST: “It certainly is,” said Coach Lowe. “I think this one has been bound to happen. I think everyone in town has been waiting on it. And I think it will be two really good football teams going at each other.

“I know our kids will be excited to go play them.”